The 55th Venice Biennale struck a great balance between showcasing art for the art-world insiders who make, buy, and live off it; and providing a spectacle, an entertainment of broader interest, in this city of spectacles. This review is far from exhaustive, as we only had 2 days to cover the ~80 country pavilions, the Arsenale, some 47 “collateral events”, and an unknown number of unofficial venues.
So-called “Outsider Art” continues to trend in a major way: the curator Massimiliano Gioni’s organising principle of an encyclopedia of knowledge (Il Palazzo Encyclopedico) was apt, allowing for a catholic (no pun intended, though the Holy See had its Biennale premiere in a first-ever Vatican pavilion) approach that accommodates both the products of the art system as well as the output of mystics and madmen.
Britain Jeremy Deller’s installation, while perhaps having an apparent hint of the “feel-good” opening/closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics, was fantastic, resonating on many levels: from the William Morris mural to the Russian voucher privatisation certificates, to the subtle reasoning that justified the proliferation of prehistoric axe blades. Deller connected perfectly: well-made art objects (even though most were not paintings or traditional sculpture), bound by a thoughtful and non-obvious conceptual framework, while retaining enough variety, humour, and poignancy to achieve a satisfying aesthetic response.
Russia Another much-talked about pavilion, by Vadim Zakharov, was certainly amusing – and topical: Russia’s supposed love of, and abundance of, conspicuously-displayed wealth. When we went, the pavilion was basically empty, save a slightly skeptical Indonesian collector accompanied by a gallerist and an umbrella-carrying flunky, so we didn’t really experience the performance in full: women only allowed in the lower level, carrying umbrellas, onto whom thousands of coins are dumped from a conveyor belt, while in the rafters of the neighbouring space, a besuited oligarch with a vaguely porn-star physique sits pensively atop a saddle, distractedly dropping peanut shells on the visitors below.
France & Germany The two countries switched pavilions (apparently as a celebration of the 1963 Elysee Treaty of reconciliation between the two countries), with Anri Sala in Germany’s 1938 building, showing a set of large videos of 2 pianists, and 1 DJ, playing Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Although somewhat panned (in The Guardian), I thought it was lovely music in a grand space with any artistic obscurantism left safely in the background (in fact, Sala’s work had quite a lot of theoretical grounding, not least in the acoustic design and resonance of the room, the slight tempo variation between the two pianists, and the “aha!” moment in seeing the third version of the performance that made sense of the other two videos). The work itself was composed for Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the philosopher (whose works on language were an important influence on Conceptual artists), who had lost a hand in war.
Germany’s exhibition in the French building was interesting less for the work, though Dyanita Singh’s photographs are always a delight, than for snapshot it gave of modern Germany itself: 4 artists, only one of which, Romuald Karmakar was actually born there (and he is half-Iranian). Karmakar, Singh, Ai Wei Wei, and Santu Mofokeng also all showed work with at least a modest amount of political content, again consistent with a post-war German tradition of soul-searching.
USA Not much to say here, other than the pavilion was filled with bitty little things, much like a badly kept ironmongers’ shoppe. No doubt there was some “deep conceptual underpinning”, “engagement with materials”, “social awareness”, and other shibboleths of the art world-speak, but frankly Sarah Sze’s “environment” was boring and a bit of a trip hazard.
Central Pavilion & Arsenale These venues had, unsurprisingly, lots of great work; equally, space and attention span demand I not dwell on them in this much-too-long post. Briefly though: Carl Jung’s Red Book , drawings by Rudolf Steiner (founder of the biodynamic movement, the product of which we love in wonderful natural wines from France and Italy!), Hilma af Klint, Indian Tantric paintings, Fischli & Weiss’ installation of unfired clay figurines, Phyllida Barlow, Francesca Grilli, Imran Quereshi’s Persian miniatures, and many others !
Others Israel’s pavilion by Gilad Ratman was an impressive and entertaining video and set of sculptures. Angola, which was a first-time exhibitor, and won the Golden Lion for its pavilion, was notable for the palazzo where it was hosted (see picture). China was, along with the equally fashionable Outsider Art, heavily represented – seven artists in the official PRC pavilion, as well as (apparently, I didn’t try to find them) pavilions for Hong Kong, Taiwan, some 10 unofficial venues, representing 350 (!) artists in total (to put that in perspective, the Central Pavilion had some 150 artists from 38 countries). Art in America magazine has a decent review (http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-opinion/news/2013-07-03/a-chinese-biennale/). From what we could see, there was some great stuff (Mao Xiaochun and Zhang Xiaotao) and some hundreds of eye-numbing paintings.
Rudolf Stingel at Palazzo Grassi The more intimate of Pinault’s two spaces was given over to an exhibition of work by Stingel, mostly of paintings, some of which are haunting photorealist images in monochrome of medieval statuary. Others are almost like lace-patterned fabric rendered in paint. The apparent visual simplicity of the paintings, which is obviously not to imply they are easy to make, stands in elegant contrast to the palazzo’s almost souk-like interior, which comes from the digitally printed tribal carpet that covers almost all walls, floors, and ceilings. Besides the pleasantly nauseating feeling one gets from looking at a carpet that is permanently (and intentionally) printed to be out-of-focus, one notes the reference to Siegmund Freud’s study in Vienna which was also so covered. The fact that the carpet pattern is identical all over, yet individual sections are hung slightly askew and overlapping, creates an opposition of coherence and variety, which only enhances the spatial effect. Also, the installation (intentionally or otherwise) evokes border countries like Austria-Hungary or Venice as places where East and West come together. A fantastic show, made the more so by being almost unvisited when we were there.
“When Attitudes Become Form” at Fondazione Prada This was probably one of the most “difficult” exhibitions, and not part of the formal Biennale programme. Prada was quite courageous in allowing the curator Germano Celant (whose subtle curation informed the Louise Nevelson show at Rome’s Palazzo Sciarra), in cooperation (or “dialogue” to use the jargon) with architect Rem Koolhaas and artist/photographer Thomas Demand, to re-create (and re-curate?) a seminal 1969 show held in the Bern Kunsthalle by then-radical curator Harald Szeemann. Prada’s building at Ca’ Corner della Regina was converted, though far from entirely, into a replica of the Kunsthalle (and an adjoining building of which little photographic record remains), with many of the relevant works borrowed in, or re-created, and placed in the space, in the same position as in the original show (or at least in the same relative position to the other works in the original show). In some cases, where works weren’t available to be borrowed or replicated, a hashed outline, not unlike at the scene of a crime, was placed on the floor/wall.
The exhibition was interesting on a few levels. Firstly, the artists represented, including Eva Hesse, Laurence Weiner, Richard Artschwager, Alighiero Boetti, although an extremely diverse set, were trying to break fairly cleanly from Minimalism and Pop Art, into movements that would later be known, inter alia, as Process Art, Conceptualism, Arte Povera, or Land Art. These artists were exploring humble, fragile and mutable materials (Eva Hesse and latex, Beuys and fat); deliberately impermanent installations (Laurence Weiner stripping plaster from a wall); compulsive repetition of simple visual constructs in series or grids (Boetti or Hanne Darboven or even Artschwager’s “blip” sculptures); deliberate lack of finish or refinement (Richard Tuttle’s wall-pieces); essential formlessness or lack of materiality or substance (Walter de Maria’s phone call or Richard Long’s land pieces). How then to represent such a diverse set, 44 years after the fact, that is often intent on making their work incapable of preservation or re-display, and is often very far from what even quite well-educated humanists (to say nothing of the average man on the street) would consider aesthetically pleasing? On this last point, one has only to go up the Grand Canal to see the fare at the Biennale, to see how ostensibly different contemporary art is from the work in the Ca’ Corner: however, a careful viewer would also see how critical the influence of these artists has been on subsequent art, including that of today.
Secondly, the exhibition was quite explicitly about the curators – from Harald Szeemann to Germano Celant – these pieces simply don’t have enough force singly, and on their own, in their artistic ivory tower. They need a curator’s energy, organisational skill, diplomacy, and impresarial nous, to make them into a coherent show. Celant essentially reproduced the 1969 show (down to temporary floors that matched the original Kunsthalle), while retaining a clear and forceful connection to the Venetian palazzo (if he wanted a perfect replica, he could simply have built a temporary building somewhere). Moreover, by re-creating or borrowing in actual pieces, howsoever fragile, carefully arranging them, and leaving conspicuous gaps where pieces couldn’t be sourced, he energised the space in a way that photographs and reams of documents never could (these are of course the way that much Land or Conceptual Art is shown in galleries, often to a collective yawn).
Overall, this show was an amazing snapshot of a critical moment, that was essentially and intentionally immaterial, and the ideas of which were hugely influential on much art that came afterwards. Celant, Demand and Koolhaas did a great job evoking the 1969 show without making a sort-of Bernese Disneyland; moreover, the show was a fantastic counterpoint to the pomp, colour, and glamour of the Biennale, a bit like a tannic backbone of a Grand Cru that softens with time but leaves its unmistakeable imprint.